Beyond the UX Tipping Point

by Jared M. Spool

Thanks to Marco Dini for the Italian translation to this article.

Surprisingly, few were talking about what could be the biggest user experience story of 2014: The introduction of the Disney Magic Band.

Once activated, park Guests use the Magic Band to gain access to the park, get in priority queues for the attractions, pay for their purchases at the concession stands, and even get into their hotel room.

Each family member has a wearable band with GPS and radio transmitters that track each other’s location in the park. At the end of their stay, Disney presents the family with a photo diary of their park adventures, having used automatic cameras to snap pictures when the Magic Bands are nearby. And imagine the face of a newly-turned six-year-old who just had his favorite Disney character address him by name and wish him a happy birthday.

The result is an extremely delightful vacation experience. Disney made a billion-dollar investment to create a wearable accessory that changes their park experience completely.

No Compromises on the Users’ Experience

To make the Magic Band work, Disney had to wire an entirely new infrastructure into its parks. Stores and restaurants needed to be outfitted with the new payment systems. Every hotel room needed new lock systems to work with the Magic Band’s RFID transmitter. Radio systems needed to start alerting the characters when a fan is nearby.

One billion dollars is a lot of money, but it’s easy to see how all these changes added up quickly. Yet, at any time, the team at Disney could’ve decided to cut corners. They could’ve said, “That’s a nice idea. Maybe we’ll do that in the second release?”

But they didn’t compromise. They decided to make the magic really work. After all, that’s what Disney is all about.

Just a decade ago, Disney was struggling to provide great online experiences. In those days, guests trying to make reservations found the system confusing and difficult to use. It was common for someone trying to book a resort stay through the website to have to call the customer support center to complete the transaction.

The real achievement of the Disney Magic Band is the transformation the organization has gone through to make it work. They made it past what we call the UX Tipping Point.

The Journey to Beyond the UX Tipping Point

The UX Tipping Point is the moment when an organization no longer compromises on well-designed user experiences. Before they hit the tipping point, they might talk about great design, but they’ll still ship a mediocre experience. However, once they’ve passed it, design has become an embedded part of their culture and DNA.

Many organizations take a similar journey to get beyond the tipping point. A typical journey might look like this:

The UX Dark Ages: At this point within the organization, there’s barely a mention of user experience. They build poor designs and deliver frustrating experiences, but don’t have any notion of how to improve that. Often, the organization’s priorities are focused on delivery and features, no matter what the design looks like.

Spot UX Projects: Someone in the organization is now feeling enough pain to create a couple of unrelated UX projects. It’s easy for these spot projects to succeed and get the attention of senior management, often because the thing they were improving was so bad, even the smallest improvement is notable. However, beyond talking about it, the UX “fever” rarely spreads beyond the manager that commissioned the initial projects.

Serious UX Investment: Senior management has caught the bug and thinks something should be done. Investment in outside help happens, whether an agency or consultancy, or maybe even hiring someone full time. More extensive projects are scoped. If they’re successful—producing solid, clearly identifiable results for the organization—more investment follows. Design starts to move from something done at the end of a project, to activities that help shape the project’s direction from the start.

Embedding UX Into Teams: Senior management realizes that UX is worth more investment, but also understands that integration into the teams is more effective. It gets faster results at a lower cost. Internal teams get staffed with UX folks who coordinate with each other while they work closely within the teams. Being embedded in the teams means that design is now an ongoing concern for the product or service, instead of being just something applied to a single release. Design roadmaps and visions start to appear.

It’s during this last phase that we see organizations crossing the UX tipping point. When UX skills are first embedded into teams, it’s still tolerable to ship a less-than-desirable design as a compromise to hitting business objectives. However, with more investment (that shows up as more UX skills added to the teams), the tolerance for compromising on design reduces. Eventually, a compromised design is more of an exception than a common occurrence.

Once the organization crosses the tipping point, we’ve found there’s still one more phase in their journey:

Integrated UX and Services: This is where Disney is with the Magic Band. User experience is no longer something delivered with a web site or an app. It’s every part of the organization. Non-digital service and product teams work together with their digital counterparts to provide a seamless, delightful experience for the customer, user, and employee. In this phase, it becomes impossible to separate out the investment in UX from the rest of what the organization delivers.

Startups Have the Tipping Point Advantage

Not every organization goes through all of these phases. The most notable exceptions are startups. If the founders understand how user experience and design will give them a competitive advantage, they build it in from the very beginning.

We see this with organizations like Cirque du Soleil, Uber, and Nest. These organizations didn’t need to prove the value of design to the senior management. Nor did they have to overcome legacy cultures and systems that never accounted for good design.

Instead, they jumped into creating great experiences from their very first day and kept running with it. Their competitors suddenly found themselves in a game of catch-up, trying to rush through the phases to pass through the tipping point.

In many cases, those competitors never quite got there. Look at Microsoft. While they’ve had some successes with products like the XBox, they’ve never made the shift of lowering their tolerance for poorly designed elements. When push comes to shove, they’ll ship something that is a less-than-ideal design to make their deadlines, instead of tailoring the ship date to when they can achieve an excellent design.

In these organizations, the rewards given senior management are for shipping features, not for delivering an excellent experience. With the rewards out of alignment, the UX Tipping Point won’t be crossed.

This Has All Happened Before

Look around any business today and you’ll see technology working in every nook and cranny. Yet it hasn’t always been that way. Just a few decades ago, there wasn’t any technology in most businesses. No databases and networks, no personal computers, and probably not even a mainframe sitting in a water-chilled room somewhere. The information technology that runs today’s businesses is a fairly new phenomenon.

Like the current UX Tipping Point, an IT Tipping Point appeared about 25 years ago. Before the IT Tipping Point, businesses got along just fine doing all their work by passing papers and relying on people to talk to each other. The business was slow and often didn’t scale very large.

When the technology came along, and then got cheaper to own, some businesses adapted right away and crossed the IT Tipping Point with glee. Others were dragged across it, kicking and screaming all the way. Many more never crossed it. They are no longer with us.

Like the UX Tipping Point, new companies of that era were born without having to make the journey across the IT Tipping Point. Because they started with the right technology in place, and a thorough understanding of how to use it, they were instantly competitive against the old mainstays in their industry. Old businesses that thought they were impregnable found themselves suddenly vulnerable to startups who had the right technological know-how.

That’s what we’re about to see with the UX Tipping Point. Suddenly, businesses that thought they were market leaders will be undermined by startups providing their customers, users, and employees great designs that don’t compromise on a better experience.

UX Literacy and Fluency: Keys to Moving Beyond

For an organization to move beyond the UX Tipping Point, it must first become literate in user experience, then fluent in how to produce great experiences. This doesn’t happen all at once, it can take years. However, if it never happens, the organization won’t make it beyond the tipping point.

Design is the rendering of intent: What does the organization intend their experience to be? Realizing they have control over their design, and the way it affects their users, is the first sign of movement in the journey.

Exposure to the current experience: Has every decision-maker been exposed to the current user experience? Seeing that their intention isn’t what users are experiencing can motivate them to invest in improving their designs.

Preventing experience rot: Can the stakeholders see the decisions that will degrade their experiences in the future? Thinking beyond a single release and understanding how new features today means complexity down the road is essential to curating a great experience.

Building the organization’s UX skills: Do product and service teams have the full set of skills necessary to deliver great experiences? Not just people with the title of designer, but everyone on the team that influences what the experience will be.

All this builds the underlying substrate that helps the organization work to a point when they feel they no longer need to compromise on good design. By understanding how to render their intentions with a team that is fully-skilled in up-to-date UX design practices, the organization can now regularly produce great user experiences for their customers, users, and employees. They’ve made it beyond the UX Tipping Point.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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